Eleventh Weekend After Pentecost (C/RCL) “For God’s Sake! Steer Away from Stingy!”
July 30-31, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
The Nightingale is a wonderful book by Kristin Hannah about a couple of sisters in France during World War II. One of them, Vianne, has her home requisitioned by the Wehrmacht, the German army stationed in the nearby town. A German officer is billeted with her; he moves in and neither sister is happy. Vianne’s best friend Rachel points out that things could be worse: at least the man is handsome and even helps with some of the yardwork. Vianne protests to her friend, “You’re the lucky one, Rachel. No one has moved into your house.” (Her home is much smaller than Vianne’s and not comfortable enough for anyone to want to bunk there.) Rachel quips, “Poverty has its reward at last.”1 In this case, less was good; the enemy left the humbler home and homeowners alone (for awhile….).
Usually we’re apt to agree with Mae West: “Too much of a good thing is a good thing.” We want more, not less. When Vianne’s husband returns home from a prisoner of war camp, he catches himself gobbling his food, head down, free arm surrounding and protecting his plate. His “Mine, all mine” attitude came from living in an environment where others stole his food. I don’t imagine many of us have had that experience, but we can still be pretty possessive.
My nephew and his family visited us this past week. The two year old gave me great sermon material. We had chips at lunch one day. She enjoyed a handful, finished her sandwich, happily toddled away from the table. When she came back into the dining room she saw her brother with the bowl of chips we’d passed to him. With fire in her eye she shouted, “Mine!!” and proceeded to melt down. She’d already eaten hers, wasn’t hungry anymore, but was incensed HE would eat HER chips! The next day I came home from work and greeted the little family, saying, “Hi, Lance!” to her dad. Once again the little lamb became a raging lion in the blink of an eye. From across the kitchen she glared at me and spit out, “MY Daddy!!” 2 or 3 times. I hadn’t even hugged him, just spoken to him! Go figure.
MY chips. MY Daddy. MY house. MY stuff. MY money.
I don’t know why the rich fool, the greedy farmer, in today’s parable socks away his crops instead of selling them. But the point is: he’s hoarding and warehousing his wealth, instead of using it as God intended: to make an honest living and to enrich his own and others’ lives. I’ve learned of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that in his younger days he made 30 pounds a year, spent 28 and gave away 2. As time went on, he made more: instead of 30 pounds a year, he earned 60, 90, finally 120 pounds a year, 4x as much as he once had. However, he continued to live on 28 pounds a year. What changed was: instead of giving away 2 pounds, he was able to give away 32, 62, 92 pounds a year. He owned 4 silver spoons and said, “I shall not buy any more, while so many around me want bread.”2 This was not a guy who subscribed to the belief, “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.”
Jesus never says wealth is bad. He knew, just as we know, that many people with a lot of money do a lot of good in this world. Jesus’ concern isn’t our money but our relationship to it. Is our money a golden calf we worship or a gift of God we use wisely and share generously? Do we realize that the more we give away the richer we become? I have little prayer cards that are a good reminder of that: “All we’ll be left with is what we’ve given away.”
Jesus certainly steers us away from stinginess and cautions us about selfishness by telling us the sad tale of the rich fool. One of the greedy farmer’s faults is that he doesn’t see beyond himself. We all swim in a sea of need, not because we ourselves are destitute but because so many people in the world lack the blessings we enjoy. The Bible reminds us time and again, and we know in our hearts, that many blessings are routed to us in order to flow through us to others. We could ask why God doesn’t just distribute blessings equally among us, so that some of us aren’t building silos to store extra grain while others are starving – but if God did that, it would be a different universe, without free will, and therefore without love, because love is one of the many free, precious but costly choices life offers.
We can imagine a happier ending to this parable, other than God’s parting words to the hoarding farmer:
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20)
‘ Echoes our first, kind of depressing reading from Ecclesiastes:
“I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? (Eccl. 2:18-19a)
It’s kind of haunting that the man’s note to self, read:
“Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” (Luke 12:19)
It’s like he wrote his own epitaph shortly before his unexpectedly sudden death. Archeologists have excavated Roman headstones from Jesus’ day with exactly that phrase written on them: “Eat, drink and be merry!” There must have been a fatalism in that, a message to the living that our time on this earth is short so we might as well live it up.
That was the rich fool’s other big problem. Besides for his myopia, his inability to see beyond himself, his own wants and needs, he was also short-sighted in that he didn’t see beyond this life. He never asked of his business decisions, his silo expansion plans, his failure to bless others with his wealth, “What does this have to do with eternity?” He didn’t acknowledge God’s blessings or God’s demands on him. He didn’t trust God. His miserliness wasn’t just an exhibition of selfishness, it was an expression of how he made material wealth his security blanket and therefore his idol, his false god. He didn’t obey the first commandment about worshiping God alone, or as Luther explained it, fearing, loving and trusting God above all else.
There are a thousand reasons for us to be anxious this summer. Events played out on the international and national stage upset us deeply, and even locally there are grave concerns. In the midst of the mayhem, may we find our security in God and God’s love. At heart, that is what our faith is: trust in God. May we thank God for our blessings, share them generously with others, and remember Martin Luther’s confession:
I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all, but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.
1Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), p. 97.
2William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible Series, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 164.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham